What exactly happens when we perform memory tests?
When taking memory tests, the use of strategies changes rapidly during the first minutes into the task. This can be seen from the results of a recent research project carried out at Åbo Akademi University.
When the task of a memory test is new or demanding, the search for suitable memory strategies begins immediately. These strategies may, for example, include grouping of the to-be-remembered material in a particular way, repeating items silently in one’s mind, or developing various associations that help to remember the information in question. After this initial stage, task performance gradually begins to develop into a routine.
According to the researchers of the BrainTrain project at Åbo Akademi University, the changes observed in the test takers’ strategies are important for two reasons. First, they indicate that, contrary to popular assumption, memory tests do not measure the same thing (such as memory capacity) throughout the duration of the test. In particular, the performance in the initial stage of the test reflects the ability to solve new challenges. Second, memory performance is heavily impacted by the chosen strategy, and strategy and memory capacity cannot easily be distinguished from one another.
The researchers are of the opinion that the rapid introduction of strategies and the subsequent routinization of performance conform to the idea that, from the test subject’s perspective, memory tests and other commonly used cognitive tests are more or less learning tasks.
“Memory tests are more versatile than we usually think. They measure not only memory but also the ability to handle new tasks. These findings can result in new cognitive measures of human adaptive ability that focus on the beginning of demanding tasks,” says Professor Matti Laine from Åbo Akademi University.
The use of memory strategies during task performance was investigated in two studies published in the scientific journals Acta Psychologica and Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology.
Otto Waris, Researcher, PhD in Psychology
Matti Laine, Professor in Psychology
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The web site of the research group is www.braintrain.fi.
Waris, O., Jylkkä, J., Fellman, D., & Laine, M. (2020) Spontaneous strategy use during a working memory updating task. Acta Psychologica, 212, 103211. Read the article.
Waris, O., Fellman, D., Jylkkä, J., & Laine, M. (in press) Stimulus novelty, task demands, and strategy use in episodic memory. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology. Read the article.